SHE CAME, SHE SAW, SHE CONQUERED: Recounting the Women’s social movements in Northeast India

History is a glaring testimony to the valor of the women of Northeast India in fighting the good war against inequality, discriminations and social evils. They have risen up in arms against atrocities meted out towards them or their communities. In the form of movements and unions, women have time and again mobilized and devised social reforms for the betterment of the society. As we celebrate “The International Women’s Day” in the month of March, it is apropos for us to discuss some of the major movements carried out by the women of Northeast India. Some of these movements are active even today and are playing a pivotal role in bringing about large scale transformation in society. Kaushik Deori pays tribute to the bravery with which the womankind have fought the adversaries and made a biting statement on feminism.

 

First words:

One understands that the stories of women can, without any caveats, be best narrated by women themselves. The author, a male, promises to be empathetic and sensitive towards the subject to the best of his abilities.

One also needs to acknowledge that the convoluted patriarchal hegemony has been detrimental to the cause of women in particular and society in general. The word “feminism” has been terribly misplaced in today’s polarizing, intolerant environment where everyone is ready to take offence at the drop of a hat. Northeast India is regarded as the gold standard in gender equality and women empowerment, but over the years, they have had their share of tussles with the government, men and society for their rights and injustice. Women have also contributed immensely in the freedom struggle of our nation. A number of women freedom fighters have been at the helm of various revolts that took place in the fight against British rule. The region is home to some of the most revolutionary women figures of the country who have excelled in their respective spheres.

We now take a deep dive into exploring the various Women’s Social Movements that took place in the states of Northeast India, some of which are still actively contributing to the communities.

Manipur:

You don’t need me to tell you about the colossal contributions of Manipuri women for the country. They are strong and formidable. They walk the talk. From Irom Sharmila’s 16-year long fasting against the heinous AFSPA (Armed Force Special Power Act), to revolting against the rapes and atrocities committed by Indian Army, to boxing world champion Marykom, Manipur is a goldmine of girl-power. The headstrong women of Manipur have been at the forefront of fighting against injustice and social discrimination. They have had an active participation in carrying out socio-political movements. Some of the major ones are:

1. NUPI LAN

Nupi Lan/Lal meaning “Women’s War”,took place twice. The first installment in 1904 was against a British order to send Manipuri men to Kabow Valley to fetch timber for rebuilding the bungalow of the Police Agent under “Lalup” (forced labor). It was vehemently opposed by over 5000 women and led to a weeklong agitation. The British were able to suppress the movement but they had to succumb to the will of the women and had to take the order back.

The second Nupi Lan took place between 1939-40. It was due to the indiscriminate export of rice from Manipur by Marwari businessmen with the support of British. This resulted in “chak tangba” (inflation of food/rice) and an artificial famine in Manipur. The movement was against the British and the Maharaja. The British then responded by deploying heavy army and police force against the unarmed women protesters. Many of them lost their lives, but ultimately the movement evolved into administrative and constitutional reforms in the state. Every year, this uprising against the artificial rice scarcity is observed on December 12.

2. Nisha Bandis

This movement started in 1970s due to activism of the Meitei women against alcoholism and drug abuse. Night marches were conducted carrying lanterns, catching the intoxicated youth red-handed and setting fire to liquor shops. It led to the introduction of prohibition law in the state and also resulted in underground insurgency. The imposition of AFSPA led to brutal dealing with insurgency causing death of many youngsters. The women involved in the movement initially carried lanterns but later they switched to flaming torches and were then called “Meira Paibi” (torch bearers).

3. Meira Paibis

As mentioned in the above section, what started as retaliation against alcoholism and drug abuse turned into “Meira Paibi” in late 1970’s. This women’s movement primarily aimed at protecting the human rights of the community and fighting against the injustices of AFSPA.

The Meira Paibis participated in the protest against the Thangjam Manorama rape case against the armed forces. The images of undressed women waging war against the Indian army with “Indian Army Rape Us” banner still haunts many. At present, Meira Paibis is an organized entity which contributes immensely in the fighting against social evils and inequities. More recently, the organization got together to create awareness and raise voice against the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

4. IROM SHARMILA, THE FACE OF ANTI-AFSPA MOVEMENT

People in Manipur have for long been at loggerheads with the government due to the AFSPA. As a mark of revolt, the Iron Lady, Irom Sharmila sat on a fast from November 2000, which lasted for a mammoth 16 years. As a young lady, she witnessed Assam Rifles personnel gunning down 10 people including teenage students under AFSPA, which really shook her. It eventually made her take the decision of fasting until the AFSPA gets abolish from Manipur. She was arrested several times under Section 309 for ‘attempt to suicide’ which she always denied and had been force-fed.

She made it clear at the Supreme Court that she had all the hopes to live a life but she wanted the centre to withdraw AFSPA from her state. She was proclaimed as “Prisoner of Conscience” by Amnesty International in 2015. She went on to participate in the Manipur Elections in 2017, which she tragically lost, gaining only 90 votes after her 16-year-old fast.

 

MEGHALAYA:

Meghalaya is a state which is home to some of the last bastions of matrilineal societies. Matrilineal is a system in which a person belongs to one’s mother’s lineage, where children carry forward their mother’s dynasty rather than their father’s and extended families and tribal alliances form along female bloodlines. The state has a rich history of women’s movements which were initiated for the welfare of the state.

1Mother’s Union:

It is the oldest known women’s union in Meghalaya which started in the year 1941 at Tura in Garo Hills and was founded in the principles of Christianity. Its primary objective is to bring up children in best moral character, to provide decent clothes to the children and to spread awareness of hygiene and wellness among Garo women.

2.  Ka Synjuk Kynthei:

This association established in 1947 is the oldest voluntary welfare organization in the areas of Khasi and Jaintia Hills. It aims at bringing socio-economic changes to the society and females. The association has opened centres which provide education in crafts, knitting, embroidery, cooking etc. Apart from that, they provide Adult Education, maternity and child welfare clinics, midwifery services in rural areas. The weaving, sewing products made by the women are sold in the market, which helps the women in becoming self dependent.

3.  Ka Synjuk Ki Kynthei Riewlum (Tribal Women Welfare and development Association of Meghalaya):

The organization was established in 1979 with its main agendas of protection of tribal lands and trade, foreigner issues, unemployment, drunkenness.

It has relentlessly worked on bringing unity, strength and solidarity among women. It has also tried to imbibe better understanding of culture and tradition and their responsibility towards the society.

4. Ka Seng Longkmie Laitumkhrah: This women organization from Laitumkhrah was formed on 28th August, 1984 with an aim to bring women of the community closer, to infuse the spirit of love, unity, cooperation and understanding among the women folks. It also aims at social upliftment of the community.

Apart from the aforementioned ones there are a few more women’s associations across Meghalaya which work for various issues related to women and their communities. Some of the notable ones are: Ka Seng Kynthei Nongrim Hills and Ka Lympung Ki Seng Kynthei. 

Meghalaya being a matrilineal society, the ownership of land and properties go to the females. The Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (Second Amendment) Bill, 2018 was unanimously passed by KHADC which was met with polarizing opinions across the community. According to the bill, “Any Khasi woman who marries a non-Khasi, as well as her offspring(s) born out of such marriages shall be deemed as Non-Khasi, shall lose the Khasi status and all privileges and benefits as a member of the Khasi tribe and cannot claim preferential privileges under any law…” This bill brought about several diverse opinions ranging from vehemently opposing to completely accepting it with open arms. I had a brief discussion via email with a young khasi woman named Azinia Nongbri, a postgraduate from Gauhati University about her take on the bill. She replied,

“As per this bill, khasi women are not proscribed to marry any outsider but this Bill clearly stated that khasi women who marries a non-khasi will simply lose the opportunity to claim the benefits or so called privileges enjoyed by the genuine or pure khasi breed. This bill is opposed by a few, but lakhs are in favor of this Bill and fortunately I’m please to be one of those who are in favor of it, since my opine stands like this:

1. The Land Transfer Act which prohibited the non-tribal to buy land in our land to curb the Khasi land to transfer to the outsiders or Non-Khasi. This Act is futile since the Non-Khasi by marrying a Khasi women, the land can be transferred to them indirectly.

2. Trading by Non-Tribal Regulation Act to curb the Non-tribal or Non-Khasi to settle business in any area which is under the jurisdiction of the KHADC also goes in vain, since the Non-Khasi can do so by marrying a khasi women.

3. The Meghalaya Benami Transaction Prohibition Amendment Act is pointless since the Benami Transaction is insuperable and unstoppable because the Khasi Women who marry Non-Khasi invigorate the Benami carried on by their husband or relative’s of him.

4. The Khasi Lineage Bill is an effective Bill to protect and safeguard the khasi indigenous people since we are vulnerable and so we need such Law to protect us.” She did have a succinct reply to my queries.

On enquiring about the current status of the matrilineal-ness of the community and the alleged friction between the males and the females due to it, she replied,

“We are the Khasis and the matrilineal society is not embraced by us by accident or force. In fact this is in our blood and what our forefathers or foremothers transmitted to us. We consider it as a unique legacy transferred by them to us and so our responsibility is to preserve this because this is our divine culture. I’m afraid, there’s no such hegemony by a khasi male over a female or so called authority. As a matter of fact, we are a special and unique community compare to others, and we pride in that.”

Assam:

The fight for freedom struggle against the British in Northeast was led by Assam. A number of women freedom fighters were lynchpins to the revolts against the oppressors. The sense of patriotism and the romantic notion of “dying for nation” overpowered the youth of that era. It was evidently seen in the poems and songs of that time which were high on nationalistic fervor.

1. Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti

Established in 1926 under Chandraprabha Saikiani, this organization has a rich history of initiating various movements for violence against women, women’s low literacy, gender discrimination in wages and workplaces and encouraging women’s self-esteem in the society, in general.

They also conduct peace campaigns and have raised their voice against women’s invisibility in the society and challenged the patriarchy inherent in it. Later this organization broke into various smaller groups with Tezpur District Mahila Samitias the major constituent of it.

2. Female freedom fighters of Assam:

i. Chandraprabha Saikiani: She was an Indian social reformer, writer and freedom fighter from Assam who founded the All Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samiti, a non-governmental organization working for the welfare of the women of Assam and was a recipient of the fourth highest Indian civilian award of Padma Shri in the year 1972 from the Government of India. In 1921, she joined the non co-operation movement of Mahatma Gandhi and worked to spread the message among women of Tezpur. She was an invited speaker at the Nagaon session of the Assam Sahitya Sabha in 1925, where she called upon the women attendees who were seated in a separate enclosure to break the barriers and the women heeded her call to come out to the open area.

ii. Pushpalata Das: She was a social worker and an ardent Gandhian. She was a member of Rajya Sabha from 1951 to 1961, a member of the Assam Legislative Assembly and a member of the working committee of the Indian National Congress. The Government of India awarded her the third highest civilian honour of the Padma Bhushan in 1999, for her contributions to society. She started her political activism from school days and was the secretary of an organization by name, Mukti Sangha. In 1931, she and her comrades organized a protest against the hanging of the revolutionary, Bhagat Singh by the British Raj for which she was expelled from school. She also participated in the Quit India Movement.

iii. Kanaklata Barua: Also called Birbala, Kanaklata joined the Mrityu Bahini, a death squad comprising groups of youth from the Gohpur sub division of Assam. On 20 September 1942, the squad decided that it would hoist the national flag at the local police station. A procession of unarmed villagers was led by Barua to do so. The police under Rebati Mahan Som, the officer in-charge of the police station warned the procession of dire consequences if they proceeded with their plan. Undeterred by the police, the procession continued marching ahead when the police fired upon the procession. Kanaklata was shot and the flag she was carrying with her was taken up by Mukunda Kakoti who too was shot at. Both Kanaklata and Kakoti were killed in the police action. Kanaklata was only 17 years of age at the time of her martyrdom.

Nagaland:

1. NAGA MOTHERS’ ASSOCIATION (PIC 5 TO GO WITH THIS SECTION)

Established in 1984, the Naga Mothers’ Association is presently a women’s peace-making organization. The most prominent movement taken up by NMA was ‘Shed No More Blood’ (which is also their theme) movement which was against gendered violence and human rights violation by campaigns prohibiting drug abuse and alcoholism.

They also train to maintain peace and prohibit violence by nurturing and sustaining ceasefire between Nagaland underground groups and government. Along with Meira Paibi, they demand the government to withdraw AFSPA and maintain peace and tranquility in their state and stop armed forces to kill innocent villagers in the name of terrorists.

Mizoram:

1. MIZO HMEICHHE INSUIHKHAWM PAWL (MHIP)

Due to the relentless pressure from the organization, the Mizoram assembly recently passed The Mizo Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance of Property Bill 2014. It was a historic victory for the women movement and a path breaking decision taken by the assembly for the uplifting the status of women in the state. The bill however came after a prolonged struggle which lasted nearly for 40 years spearheaded by the women organization under its President Pi Sangkhumi. MHIP had been demanding for changes in Mizo Marriage Laws, especially they wanted abolition of Mizo Bride Price in Mizo marriages. They said, “If age old customs like child-marriage, purdah, etc. can be illegal now, then why not the bride price in Mizoram can be declared illegal?”

The organization has also time and again fought against violence against women, discrimination in workplaces, and campaigned for 33% women’s reservation in the political system among others.

In conclusion

The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Sikkim haven’t seen major women’s movement in its history. It is poignant to mention that the representation of women in the political leadership positions has been abysmal. We need more women leaders to push forward the issues of women. And to empower women, each of the members of the civil society will have to come forward and shun the stereotypical biases against the female. Confining ourselves to the redundant gender roles will only create hindrance to the plans of becoming a world superpower. The vicious Brahminical Patriarchal norms have always made the womankind a second fiddle to the male counterparts. It is astonishing that we are still discussing issues like female feticide, dowry, domestic violence and honour killing in 2019 India. A controversial survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2018 ranked India as the world’s most dangerous country for women. . The Me Too movement cracked opened a pandora’s box which in actuality is the general attitude towards women. We as a society need to re-evaluate the fault lines. It is about time that we elevate ourselves from these acts of mindless hara-kiri and join hand in hand to realizing our idea of an egalitarian society.

 

References:

i. Karna M.N. (1998). Social Movements in Northeast India, Shillong, Meghalaya, Indus Publishing Company, Delhi

ii. mizoram.nic.in

iii. khadc.nic.in